Last reviewed 2 June 2016
In this article, Kevin McIvor, HR Consultant at Pellys Transport and Regulatory Law, considers the driver shortage problem in the commercial vehicle industry and looks at ways in which operators can adapt their ways in order to attract and retain drivers.
According to a well-known proverb: “if it can’t be cured it must be endured” which is a bit of reverse psychology because apart from Fermat’s last theorem, every problem has a solution. Another idiom states that “the definition of madness is to continue to do the same things but expect different results”.
Everyone in the commercial transport industry seems to be talking about the driver shortage problem from their own point of view. For instance, drivers talk about the issues that directly impact their perspective namely wages and conditions whereas operators talk about the problems of meeting regulatory standards and the lack of funding support. Regulators talk about the need for operators to resolve their own issues.
It is generally considered that the average age of commercial drivers is getting higher, with not enough young people joining the industry. Some causes may be that the wages are not sufficiently attractive, or that managers could do more to motivate their people or that there is too much regulation. Licence acquisition and driving training are costly, if foreign workers are recruited, are they better than home workers? Some drivers have poor working/social life balance and many would say the industry has a poor image. This image may have worsened recently with the current migrant crisis, as international drivers often face danger to themselves and risks of fines if illegal immigrants are found in their lorries.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Freight Transport report Barriers to Youth Employment in the Freight Transport Sectorin January 2015 highlights that only 2% of drivers are under 25 years of age whereas 60% are over 45 and 16% are over 60. Combine this with a lack of attraction to a non-glamorous industry and most people would say this is a big problem now and predicted to get worse.
The logistics industry, at least, is in rude health. Thanks to the internet and online shopping, logistics is set to grow for the foreseeable future. The biggest problem is that, if operators do not change, there definitely will not be enough drivers to fulfil the orders.
At a recent trade association meeting in East Anglia (in fact, it was Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT)), where the driver shortage in the bus and coach industry was discussed, a number of operators expressed concern that part of the problem was that too much regulation governed the industry and drivers were worried by the risks they face. The Traffic Commissioner who was present responded sympathetically but logically indicated that the future for the industry, probably (like many others) will have more regulation rather than less because everyone wants a truly safe, well-regulated and professional service for the public. He also addressed the question of driver shortage by indicating that, in his view, the solution lies in the hands of the operator and not the regulator. In this area, freight operators and, bus and coach operators face similar issues.
How can Government and Trade Associations help?
National Government — does the industry have a shared view of the most important things that the Government of the day can actually do to help and what are operators doing to communicate that view effectively?
Trade Associations — is there more that trade associations can do to help and is the message from the industry being made clear? Is there a shared view across trade associations about what to do?
What can operators do to help solve the problem?
Operators can truly sit down and listen to their own people on their concerns or carry out an anonymous survey to get the real picture? A radio phone-in to a BBC breakfast show last year in Northampton revealed a host of complaints from drivers which operators could consider whether or not to action for their transport businesses. Some of the complaints and suggestions are listed below.
A common complaint was that pay was low for the complexity of the task. Here is a tip: if operators cannot be the best at pay, they could try to be better at something else. So, how do operators show that they value their drivers? Have they done any of the following?
Thanked them for a great day’s effort.
Asked them their opinion on how best to run/manage the fleet/deal with a problem.
Given someone an “apple” for something done really well.
Praised their work in front of their peer group.
Rewarded good performance with extra training/responsibility.
Promoted someone and made a “fuss” over it.
Career or just a job
Most drivers who phoned into the programme felt that driving was a job with not much future. Here is a tip: if operators do not involve their people in their business, the people will not feel part of it. Have operators done the following?
Ensured that all contracts are written, up to date and fit for purpose.
Set up employee handbooks with terms and conditions and explained them to the drivers.
Looked at the pay arrangements to build a simple career structure. (Once upon a time a large number of the workers in a large UK Water Company were called Sewage Farm Operatives; there was high labour turnover. When asked in the pub what they did for a living a lot were embarrassed to say they dealt with sewage for a living. Then someone had the bright idea to rename their roles to Water Technician and reflect experience by grading the roles. Suddenly, they were not embarrassed and had a career rather than a job. That bright someone was one of the sewage workers.)
Looked at the local market and examined competitor and alternative employers’ employment practices to see if there is something interesting happening from which they can learn.
Managers’ ability to motivate
Many drivers felt they were treated merely as units of production. Here is a tip: the biggest role for a manager (actually in all industry) is motivating their staff and creating the conditions for good performance. Are operators:
putting together a detailed role profile and person specification for their manager levels so they know what is expected on all areas of the role?
examining the level of training that managers have at dealing with people management issues?
providing an individual learning plan for each manager?
encouraging managers to go back out on the road for a day/night to see how it really is for the driver?
(As an example, an HR director in a well-known logistics company once could not understand how it was so difficult for payroll staff to get the payroll out without stress and anxiety each month resulting in high sickness rates until the HR director spent a week doing the clerk’s job. He was then able to see things from the staff member’s point of view and he changed a few procedures after that experience.)
Recruit further afield
In the really tough times, it was said that many companies were recruiting more foreign drivers. Here is a tip: this is a stop gap measure. When economic conditions pick up in the worker’s home country — the worker goes home. (Once upon a time, there was a serious teacher shortage in London and one of the boroughs went to Dublin to recruit Irish teachers. They recruited about 30 teachers who duly turned up for work. A year or so later when the Celtic Tiger had improved its health there were only eight of the recruits still in the borough.) Many foreign drivers are actually employed as agency staff and so the problem is compounded since the agency itself is, often for the operator, a stop gap measure staffed with stop gap workers. The structural driver shortage needs a structured solution.
Attract young people to the industry
It is generally thought that there are too few young people joining the industry. Here is a tip and put some focus on this one: have operators ever done any of the following?
Set up an apprenticeship scheme for young drivers.
Supported the acquisition of the relevant licences coupled with retention clauses in the employment contracts.
Gone to local schools and colleges and given talks or had open days at their depots.
Asked a young person how they would attract young people to the industry? (Once upon a time, there was a captain of a golf club bemoaning that membership was falling and no young people were joining. When asked, a 16-year-old gave his view on what might make a difference. He said he hated the normal golf attire and would want to wear jeans to play golf. This was duly put forward but the captain rejected it as it would tarnish the image of the club. The membership continued to fall.)
Used social media to recruit as well as build industry/company awareness.
Encouraged the Trade Associations to run marketing campaigns in schools and colleges to extol the virtues of the industry.
The trouble with all this is that each one is not mutually exclusive. It is all relevant to building the industry into a professional well respected and attractive career choice. Each company must decide what it can, must and will do for the future.
No one can say with certainty how well any one of these measures will work. However, if operators do not gear up for change they could end up like the golf club with ageing players wearing chequered trousers and a clubhouse struggling because there is no new blood to keep it alive. The winners in the industry will be the ones who embrace the need for change and do something.
Actually Fermat’s last theorem which had stumped the world’s best mathematicians for over 350 years was solved by Andrew Wiles in 1993 but he probably gave the problem a lot of his personal attention.